BY SHELLIE TAYLOR
This time of year, I can walk through any cemetery and see a plethora of holiday florals adorning the graves of those who have passed on. Christmas seems to be a popular time for people to visit the graves of their loved ones and place flowers on the stones as a tribute. Recently, I came across a few other mentions of the tradition of leaving graveside flowers that I thought I would share.
Here in Western North Carolina, the long-celebrated tradition of Decoration Day referred to a day in late spring or summer where communities gathered to hold memorial services for those Confederate dead who served in the Civil War. A similar tradition was held in the northern parts of the country in honor of the Union dead. These celebrations eventually evolved into what we now recognize as Memorial Day, which is honored the last Monday in May.
In the South, particularly in the Appalachian region of eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, Decoration Day was bigger than Easter. There were lots of components that went into the Decoration Day festivities beyond just laying flowers on graves. These events usually took place on a Sunday, either after church or as an outdoor church service. A preacher was called on to deliver a sermon and pray. The traditional “dinner on the ground” was a community meal, similar to a potluck, both for the purpose of fellowship and the symbolic connection to ancestors buried in the ground on which they sat. This practice has sometimes been referred to as the “graveyard communion.”
“Decoration Day in the Mountains,” by Alan and Karen Singer Jabbour, documents the tradition which was still very much active as of the 2010 publication in the western-most Carolina counties. Some events from 2004 included singing and even a baptism in the nearby creek. Although this celebration was more widely recognized in the mountains of our state, Iredell County saw its fair share of Decoration Day events. There is an iconic picture of a Memorial Day event from May 10, 1911, at the Fourth Creek Burying Ground. The special speaker at that event was North Carolina Gov. William Kitchin. As far back as 1876, local Statesville papers reported a Memorial Day celebration at Fourth Creek. Decorations were usually arranged by the ladies of the community or an auxiliary ladies group.
Decorations typically included flowers, some real and others artificial. The early to mid-twentieth century witnessed the common practice of creating crepe paper flowers in the winter in preparation for the spring activities. Although we are accustomed to seeing the saddle floral arrangements which sit atop the stone, it was very common to see flower blankets across the entire grave of an individual. Many cemeteries in the North Carolina mountains still observe this tradition and also mound their graves with dirt or gravel.
Although in the American South the custom of adorning graves was reserved for Confederate soldiers, the practice goes back much farther than the Civil War. Between 1819 and 1820 Washington Irving, famous author of the Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle stories, published his Sketches, which contained an interesting passage about rural England funerals. Citing an antiquated practice going back to the Greeks and Romans, Irving describes a once-prevalent ritual that is fading from common practice. Temporary flowers being laid at a graveside was not as common as planting permanent flora in cemeteries such as holly, rosemary, and other evergreens. The colors and types of flowers were usually symbolic as well. For example, white flowers and lilies were to represent purity and were typically used on the graves of young women who had died as virgins. Roses were mostly used in the cases of lovers who had been parted by death. Irving describes the practice of revisiting graves and leaving tokens as a healing process for grievers. Leaving flowers or decorations was a way of remembering a lost soul. This purpose was repeated by Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War as a way to remember the lost lives of soldiers in both the Union and Confederacy.
In the spirit of what the season of Christmas represents, let’s continue the legacy of our ancestors. Whether you are remembering a fallen soldier or a beloved family member, lay a flower (or a blanket of them) at the grave of someone special this year. Enjoy the time with family and friends who still walk the earth with us and be thankful for their presence.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Shellie Taylor is a local history program specialist at the Iredell County Public Library.